Toy story: how a Saigon public bus pimps its ride

By Diep Phan   May 18, 2021 | 05:31 am PT
Driver Pham Ngoc Tuyen and assistant Pham Van Sang of public bus 146 have delighted passengers by decorating it with stuffed animals and plushies.

It is 12:30 p.m. when Tuyen completes his final trip from the Hiep Thanh Bus Station in District 12 to the Mien Dong Bus Station in Binh Thanh District. After the bus comes to a complete stop, Sang runs off to sign the logbook.

The 49-year-old bus assistant does not rush back to the bus, though.

He goes to try his luck with two claw machines in the bus station. Inserting a VND10,000 ($0.43) bill into the slot in exchange for two coins corresponding to two chances, Sang begins to move the lever and press the button. He manages to pluck a red buffalo soft toy with his second chance.

When his colleague brings the brand new toy, driver Tuyen is thrilled. "What a cool addition to our collection. It would have been nice if we’d got this one and hung it up during in time for Tet to welcome the Lunar New Year (Year of the Buffalo). Are there any left in the machine? You should try to get another one in the evening so we can hang it on the other side and make it look symmetrical."

"Okay, I will try to get another one later," Sang replies.

Pham Van Sang (L) and Pham Ngoc Tuyen (R) posing for photo in the Bus 146. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Pham Van Sang (L) and Pham Ngoc Tuyen in the public bus 146 that they have decorated with stuffed animals and plushies. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Tuyen and Sang have been friends for a long time, but have only worked together on bus 146 for about two years. When he was assigned as the new driver of this bus, Sang discovered that there was a staff member who was very good at picking up stuffed animals, so he often bought them at a cheap price for his grandchildren and also put a few up on the bus ceiling.

When they found that passengers were happy and impressed with the decorative touch, Sang decided to conquer the game and get more toys.

During the Covid-19 outbreak last year, the number of bus trips was reduced and the staff had a long time off, so he had the opportunity to try and win many plushies.

At first, he failed often and barely caught any toy with the claws. But he persisted and with a lot of experience, managed to pick the toys frequently. Over more than a year now, Sang has lost count of how many stuffed animals he has picked up. He plays one or two times a day almost every day, turning the bus into a "kingdom" of stuffed animals.

Toan, 60, Sang's colleague who is another driver of bus 146, said: "Whenever I change shift with the two, I also feel very happy since I have the chance to drive the stuffed animal bus. All the commuters compliment us. They say that looking at the stuffed animals swaying around is a lot of fun and gives them a different feel from sitting on a normal bus."

Stuff animals are dangling inside the bus. Photo by VnExpress/ Diep Phan.

A passenger buys a ticket inside bus 146 that is festooned with stuff toys. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

The toy lottery

Whenever he wins a new toy, Sang gives away an old one or that looks similar to regular customers, children or students. In order to create a happy atmosphere for passengers on the bus, especially during peak hours when students are out of school, Sang organizes a game to give away stuffed animals. After selling tickets to all guests, he randomly announces three digits. Whoever has a ticket number with matching last digits wins a toy.

"If a customer likes any one of the toys, I give it to them. The job of a driver and bus assistant is stressful, so doing this makes us and the customers happy," Sang said, smiling.

Their unusually decorated bus also attracts unusual attention. Once, Sang saw a motorbike suddenly speed up to overtake the bus. When the bus stopped at a street light, two young people waiting by the sidewalk came close to the glass windows, took pictures of the bus full of stuffed animals, returned to their motorbike and drove away.

Thu Huyen, 20, a student at the from Industrial University of Ho Chi Minh City, uses bus 146 often to go to school: "I take many different buses, but the bus of Tuyen and Sang is the most special because they decorate it hundreds of stuffed animals. Their stuffed animals usually new and clean and are frequently updated. I have noticed that some of the new toys that I see in the machine make their way to the bus in a few days."

The bus parks at Mien Dong Bus Station at noon on May 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

Bus 146 parked at the Mien Dong Bus Station at noon, May 12, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Diep Phan.

After completing a trip to the Hiep Thanh Bus Station, the two friends take turns inviting each other for lunch. With about 20 minutes remaining during the lunch break, they discuss removing all the stuffed toys and repositioning them in the evening.

The toys don’t just occupy the ceiling. They are also placed on armrests, in the front and other places. Sometimes they are hung in color clusters, sometimes in a symmetrical order, and in some other order at different times.

"Since the day we started having them, we are also much more diligent in cleaning the bus. We clean the bus, clean the air-conditioner fans so that the stuffed animals won’t be dangling in dust," Tuyen said.

Although he spends VND10,000-20,000 of his hard earned money every day to "picking" up the stuffed animals just to decorate and give to customers, Sang says has no intention of stopping. He is only worried that the owner of the claw machines might remove them because he wins too many of the toys.

"Last year there were four machines, but now there are only two. I would be very sad if all of them were removed. Picking up stuffed animals is my entertainment and the passengers are also happy.

"Instead of drinking coffee at a café, now I brew my own and bring it. Since we don't smoke, we use that extra money to pick up the stuffed animals."

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